Cantata prides itself on being the first “grand tactics” game, bringing the strategy genre to a whole new level. After months in early access and outstanding reviews from its players, Cantata is leaving early access on August 15, 2023, and launching into a full-fledged title.
We spoke with Lead Developer and Creative Director at Afterschool Studio, Kyle Kukshtel, while the game got its footing in early access. Kukshtel stated that he wears a lot of hats and has touched pretty much every aspect of Cantata, so CGM was lucky enough to chat with him, to gain some insight into what makes Cantata so special.
Can you tell us a bit about the team that worked on Cantata?
We were about 12 people at the height of production, and all relatively new to making “full” games. A lot of us used to work on VR and immersive experience projects and knew each other from that space, but others of us had collaborated on films and other projects before then as well. We weren’t quite misfits, but we definitely weren’t the type of studio that was formed from a group of people that all left an AAA studio together.
Where did the story for Cantata originate, and has it changed since early develop
The story started with a very simple idea I had a while ago, I think inspired by just some generic science fiction thoughts. I’m not a writer, though, so the story changed a lot in terms of details and plotline when we brought on Roy Graham as our writer. He really injected a ton of personality and thought into the story and came up with all the Commanding Officers that have since become major characters in Cantata that you see everywhere you see the game.
You’ve created a huge world in Cantata, with numerous different factions and a 9 part campaign. Could you tell us a little bit more about how this affects gameplay and what players can look forward to?
I’ve said this before in other places, but with Cantata, a lot of what we do in the campaigns is to try and give people a really unique, self-contained experience in each campaign chapter. Each chapter has a suite of unique music, unique units, unique terrains, etc. They are each almost their own self-contained sci-fi story. To that end then, we also craft the gameplay to match the stories for those chapters. Some chapters are large-scale battles with multiple fronts and regions, and others drill in on tactical, almost X-COM-style encounters between a small force and difficult odds.
What sets Cantata apart from other tactical games?
I think there’s a lot here – one of the most obvious things is the art style, which is this psychedelic-inspired colour palette that really tries to break out of the traditional brown/green strategy game mould and go beyond colour-keying faction units. Looking at Cantata looks like you’re looking into a whole world.
On the mechanics side, a big difference between us and other tactics games is that there is a strong resource and logistics aspect to the game. Units must be directly produced with resources you create, and buildings to produce those things need to be built on territory you capture. The scale that then must happen to support this also lends itself to other non-tactics game tactics like flanking, taking out resource nodes, cutting supply lines, etc.
You mention the term Grand Tactics genre when defining the game. What exactly is a Grand Tactics game?
I think the simplest way to think about it is “tactics at the scale of grand strategy.” So imagine you are playing a tactics game, but the map is Civilization/Total War-sized. We then do a lot of stuff on top of that to make that experience be compelling instead of tedious, but really focus on trying to make sure you feel the large-scale “immediacy” of the game instead of feeling “distanced” from the nitty gritty, like you do in something like CK3, Total War, etc. Armies in Cantata aren’t abstractions. They are literally what you see on the map.
The art style and use of colour are very unique in a tactical title. How were those choices made?
It really started with the artist, CobraLad. I saw some art he had posted on Tigsource a while back with this sort of orange tank, and immediately I was like, “This is what Cantata looks like.” Before that, I was looking into way more traditional “neo-cyberpunk” stuff like the Sink00 Tumblr and OtakuGangsta, but his art made me be like, “Why can’t the game look like that?”. On top of that, at the time, I had read Jenny Jiao Hsia talking about Beglitched and just “making it pink,” and I thought, “What if we just make it pink?”. So we did.
How have Modern Wolf and Afterschool Studio worked together on this project? Was it a joint effort, or did Afterschool Studio have free reign over Cantata?
Modern Wolf gave us a lot of latitude to make Cantata the way we wanted to. We were very open about the exploratory nature of the kind of game we were making, and they’ve rolled with it all as we’ve reconfigured the game more than a few times. Working with them has been great.
What inspirations did the team draw from to create Cantata?
I think there are some maybe obvious references like Advance Wars and Alpha Centauri, but once we realized we weren’t really making games like that, we started to look elsewhere. One major influence was Jeff VanDerMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy (Annihilation, etc.) as well as Anne Lecke’s Ancillary Justice/Sword/Mercy. We also looked at and thought a lot about board games. Games like Twilight Imperium, Root, Inis, and general “Area Control” games were especially helpful in thinking about how to do a large, cohesive strategy game map.
Cantata has been in early access for quite some time. Why that long, and what benefits have the game seen because of this?
We really wanted to use Early Access as intended and not just as some sort of marketing beat to get people interested in what was an otherwise finished game. When we went into EA, Cantata was definitely not done, but we also had a lot of things to work out design-wise. Those were decisions we could have maybe made in private, but I think pulling the community in early on to help us figure out what the game should be was incredibly important for us and definitely kept us honest. We’ve made major game system changes based on EA feedback, and the game is better for it.
What changes and updates to the game can we look forward to seeing between Early Access and the full release?
We’re nearing the end of Cantata‘s EA journey, so no major things between now and the final release. The final release will obviously have the final chapters of the game’s campaign, but we’ve got a few other things up our sleeve that I think people will be excited about.
What part of Cantata do you think Afterschool and Modern Wolf are most looking forward to seeing fans’ reactions to?
I think really digging into the full, complete campaign. I think a lot of people played the first few chapters and haven’t dug in since then and are waiting for 1.0, so I want people to really return to the game and see how much work we’ve put into each chapter. Every chapter has its own unique suite of music, custom units, custom terrains, and variations on how to play the game, which makes each chapter feel like its own self-contained tactical sci-fi story. I think people will really enjoy exploring those stories and finding all the hidden things on the maps.
Just for fun, what’s your personal favourite part of Cantata?
I think an easy answer is the characters. We put so much time into being with these people that everyone on the team now has a sense of them and who they are. We weave their personality into not only their dialog, but each also has a set of thematic powers that really gets at who they are.
Additionally, I really love how our map editor turned out. We had some “pie in the sky” ideals for it when we started, like the Starcraft/Warcraft editor or Wargroove’s editor, and when we started, they seemed so far away from what we could do. Now, however, the editor is incredibly robust, and there is so much you can do with it. I’m really proud to say that every campaign chapter is made with the same editor that we ship to people on Day 1. I think there’s a ton of creative potential there, and I really can’t wait to see what people do with it.